Sunday, 05 December 2021
ON an early September morning we head out to Newnhamhill Bottom, which lies in a dip in the land below and to the north of Stoke Row and the steep Witheridge Hill.
I love it out here as it is hardly known with little traffic and a scattering of attractive, old brick-and-flint dwellings, some large, some smallish, in a super part of the south Chilterns embraced by the heavenly chalk hillsides.
We head north towards Newnhamhill Farm, Nott Wood, Howberrywood and Devil’s Hill.
I have never walked this way before and neither has Rosemary, so it’s a new experience for both us explorers.
It is pleasantly quiet here apart from the welcome birdsong — robins have started to sing (a sign of winter’s approach), some quietly, others more strident.
A few carrion crows caw, dunnocks sing their rapid, high and thin warbles, wrens give it their best, great tits call, red kites whistle above and a green woodpecker laughs.
Scrambling up a short slope, we meet an attractive bridleway heading west that is lined with pendulous sedge. It looks quite dreamy, straight out of a fairy tale. We’ll try it soon.
Our chosen lane today is a minor marvel which reveals so much human and botanical history. The predominantly beech woodlands look like prime territory to find ghost orchids, which is why I have brought a powerful torch with me as they are hard to spot.
This is an ancient route peppered with fruiting crab apples and blackthorns, both with ripening fruit.
Field maples, sturdy old oaks, aspens, hazels with green nuts, young English elms, healthy ash trees (a good sign), hearty cherries and whitebeams, beech trees throwing their nuts all about, silver birch, dogwood, holly, yew and buckthorn make up the broad variety on display.
On the ground the remnants of now desiccated bluebells are scattering seeds for a future generation, slender nipplewort is doing the same and hedge woundwort is rattling with tiny black seeds. Honeysuckle is hung with clusters of red berries.
A strangely shaped oak provides a convenient, mossy seat to admire the land rolling off to our right. A gate to our left leads into a fallow field.
Bracken and ferns line our route. I find a clump of slender-stalked harebells on the east bank. This is unusual as it normally grows in far more open environments such as at Crowsley Park.
Black bryony snakes through the undergrowth and field roses, nearly thorn-free, are frequent. Lords-and-ladies bear red fruits on spikes, bittersweet dangles poisonous red berries and blackberries glow. Foxgloves are still in flower, remarkably.
There are some superb oaks with substantial trunks. One in particular has an array of branches that spread all around, a joyous sight.
Passing a remote house, we are assailed by an excited little dog barking with tail wagging. We are really scared!
We enter Nott Wood, mainly beech with plenty of silver birch, oak and the occasional whitebeam. On the flinty ground there are many different mosses on stones and fallen boughs.
The sun shines through the leaves above so that it does not feel like September, more like midsummer. Only the fungi and fruits give the season away.
At the base of an oak we find a large oak bracket (Inonotus dryadeus).
Strolling on, we note a large variety of woodland grasses. I recognise some of them but need a reference work for the others so Rosemary takes pictures of them for me to examine later.
After a while we take a right turn on to a path that runs between Nott Wood and Devil’s Hill, leading to the south-east.
The ground here is flinty, too, and the pronounced tree roots provide a certain peril for the night-walker. I recommend carrying a torch if you are brave enough.
Our path is really narrow but welcoming. Great tits sound off, a pheasant “cor-koks”, a robin claims his patch with a beautiful melodic rendition, a buzzard mews aloft and a jay shrieks. Otherwise it’s reassuringly quiet.
After leaving the woods, we are presented with a finely carved valley, possibly glacial. A wonderful sight, too. The gradual descent into Stony Bottom is quite entertaining.
Cattle swish their tails underneath shady ash and oak trees, unworried by strangers crossing their sweet meadows.
At the bottom, we stop briefly to scan our surroundings and then we climb a gentle rise.
We find more wild flowers in the wide-open meadow. Yellow-flowered groundsel, red bartsia, chicory with sky-blue blooms, pink-hued common mallow, scentless mayweed with its yellow discs and white ray florets, red and white clovers, yarrow with diminutive clusters of white and pinky flowers, yellow meadow buttercup, the impressive remains of greater burdock, shepherd’s-purse, yellow wild parsnip, custard-coloured blooming hawkweeds and violet small scabious.
At the top of the hill we regain the bridleway where we began our circuit, clamber up and look back. This is certainly a walk to repeat. We love it out here and, for the few inhabitannts, what a place to live.
On the way back to our car, we spot some hedge woundwort in full flower. How things are changing in the natural world.
Our walk, no more than three miles, has turned out to be wonderful. We never rush it and often stop to take it all in. We didn’t find any ghost orchids, the botanist’s Holy Grail, but I’ll continue to search and pack my torch.
On a different tack, we have just received a letter from Reading Borough Council stating that we now have 11 tree preservation orders for valuable specimens of community value in our back garden.
The trees now protected range from a magnificent giant fir (Abies grandis) and an equally imposing giant sequoia, or Wellingtonia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), to an elegant dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboboides) and a handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata).
There was a sound reason for seeking a survey from a council expert that has led to the orders as a property developer has been pressing for some years to acquire land and build more houses in our and our neighbour’s back gardens.
Before I met Rosemary, she was offered a derisory sum for the land and was told that if she agreed to the offer, she would have to cut down her cherished trees at her own expense!
We’d never sell anyway but the trees in our mini nature reserve have saved the day, so bravo to our dendrological heroes.
P.S. My friend Professor Richard Fortey has pointed out two errors in this column last week. The photograph of hoary plantain was in fact ribwort plantain while marsh ragwort as described is common fleabane. Sorry.
30 September 2021
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